By Pamela Bedore, Ph.D., University of Connecticut
Charlotte Perkins’ Herland was first published in 1915, much before feminist utopias became a trope in the 1970s. How did Charlotte Perkins approach this idea in a time when feminism was in its nascent stages? And how believable is the fact that an all-woman society could evolve as in Herland?
To begin with, we have the standard trope of an outside explorer who stumbles upon the utopian land. But in this case, there are three. We have a first-person narrator named Vandyck Jennings, who goes by Van. He and two friends—Jeff and Terry—are exploring somewhere unnamed.
Their aboriginal guides tell them of a land nearby that has only women—women and girls; no men at all—and that it’s been there for centuries. Our three young male explorers are intrigued. They know it’s all very unlikely, and even if there is such a land, there’s got to be a good explanation.
But still, the three of them make a plan. They fly a biplane over the big cliffs the guides have indicated, and there they are. And it’s all true. The three young men see three nimble young women frolicking in the forest, climbing with the grace and agility of elite gymnasts, and they—in a grand cliché—immediately fall in love.
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Three Models of Masculinity
They’re also pretty much immediately captured, by the women; very strong, very unafraid women. And for nine months they live in luxurious captivity as they are reborn, as private tutors teach them the language and customs of Herland.
The visitors represent three models of masculinity. Jeff is the gentleman. Terry is the opposite. Van is the sociologist, the one who thinks he sees the world in an unbiased, rational way. The three of them often argue, with Terry demeaning women, Jeff idealizing them, and Van just trying to understand.
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Lifestyle of Herland
Our three male visitors learn amazing things about Herland. About the size of Holland, Herland is perfectly organized for its population of healthy, intelligent, community-driven women.
The women decided centuries ago that keeping livestock was an inefficient, so they have a vegetarian lifestyle with a diet that’s high in nuts. They use sustainable farming techniques that would make 21st-century organic farmers proud.
Each woman chooses one or more trades to learn and pursue, and the women live in comfortable, efficient communities with a perfect blend of private and public spaces. Even the clothing is perfectly designed: comfortable and attractive and with just the right number of pockets.
A History of Herland
During their time there, the men are encouraged to ask questions and are given detailed answers by excellent tutors. And in these answers, we may find how possible it is that a Herland could evolve.
First question: How did this amazing society develop without men? About 2,000 years ago—pretty close to the time of Christ—there was a polygamous, slave-holding society, in which many of the men were killed in war and the survivors fled to a big defensible valley behind a mountain pass. A volcano exploded killing most of the men, who were defending the pass, and the survivors were almost all women.
The few surviving slave men killed all the male masters and tried to dominate the women, who, in self-defense, killed every last man. They thought it was the end of their civilization. However, about 10 years later, a miracle occurred, and one of the women became pregnant; a gift from the gods.
That woman bore five daughters, and those five daughters bore five daughters each, and so on, until the land reached the optimal population and the women decided they needed to limit births to one per person. They could do this by turning their energies elsewhere when they began to feel the urge toward fertility—a natural, miraculous parthenogenesis and an equally natural form of birth control.
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The women don’t compete for mates and they are tremendously good stewards of their resources, so they have no unmet need.
They worship the institution of motherhood, so they have the very brightest members of their society in charge of teaching their children. Also, they follow experiential learning, where children learn from playing, doing, asking—never by rote. From infancy, children realize that learning is fun, so they do it their entire lives.
Their lives are happy and fulfilling. But any time a woman feels blue, she can drop into a church and speak to one of the women there whose chosen life work is to reflect on the goddess and to provide advice and guidance to people who are struggling.
Why don’t they get bored of all the happiness? It’s a surprising question for them, but the tutors answer it seriously. Maybe it’s because they have nothing to compare it to. Or maybe it’s because they find so much fulfillment in motherhood.
It seems that Herland could well be a possible feminist utopia; at least once parthenogenesis can be successfully achieved.
Common Questions about the Feminist Utopia in Herland
In Herland, there are three outside explorers who discover the utopia. We have a first-person narrator named Vandyck Jennings, who goes by Van. He and two friends—Jeff and Terry—arrive in Herland by flying a biplane over some cliffs in an unnamed location.
After all the men of their society were killed thousands of years ago, one of the women miraculously gave birth parthenogenetically. Since then, the population of Herland has stabilized with each woman giving birth to just one child, and then turning their energies to develop a helpful or useful skill.
The women of Herland worship the institution of motherhood, so they have the very brightest members of their society in charge of teaching their children. Also, they follow experiential learning, where children learn from playing, doing, asking—never by rote. From infancy, children realize that learning is fun, so they do it their entire lives.